A full 22 days after Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast, Robert Williams of Vancleave, Miss., is still waiting for a FEMA or a county truck — something. “I called FEMA, once the phones came back,” the 32-year-old church janitor told the Los Angeles Times. “They gave us a case number and said someone would be out as soon as possible. We have no idea when that will be.”

Vancleave’s population is 2,000. The town is 60 feet above sea level, 20 miles from Biloxi and 103 miles from New Orleans. The town is more than 90 percent white.

Nearly half of Mississippi’s people, 1.6 million, have lived in rural areas for generations. According to the census, 21 percent of Mississippians live below the poverty line of $21,180 per year for a family of five. The national poverty rate is 12 percent. Mississippi is about 61 percent white and 36 percent Black with a small but growing Latino community.

In the town of Escatawpa, near Biloxi, “It’s like we’re invisible,” said A.C. Marion, who rode out Katrina despite being just home from heart surgery and suffering from diabetes.

Marion’s neighbor, Ruby Williams, managed to borrow a car (hers had been destroyed) to take Marion to the doctor. “I keep waiting for somebody to come out here,” Williams said. “But we haven’t seen any kind of inspectors, not from FEMA, not from the insurance companies. It’s like we are out of sight, out of mind.”

Todd Schwebel cut his way to work in Lumberton, a town of 2,228 of whom 54 percent are African American and 46 percent are white. Lumberton is 20 miles from New Orleans.

“In the Hattiesburg area, there are about 35,000 people from New Orleans,” he said in a telephone interview with the World. “There’s not a house that doesn’t have a tree in it, but our people pulled together. We’ve been patient up to now. We now have water that you can drink, but no help from the federal government. There are 800 to 1,000 trailers being set up in a field for temporary housing. They are sitting there, empty.”

Mississippi has more than 70 African American mayors. The National Conference of Black Mayors met in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 22 seeking to resolve many issues starting with trailers sitting empty. As of Sept. 27, they are still empty.

In a voice as gentle as a Delta sunset, Schwebel described the assistance they did get. Help came, he said, when electrical workers from South Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin and Minnesota arrived two days after Katrina — but there was no FEMA, no federal assistance.

“It’s hot here,” Schwebel said, laughing just a bit. “I felt for those workers from Wisconsin and Minnesota. What really got them, though, were these June bugs we have. You can’t go 15 miles down the road before you can’t see out your windshield. The storm stirred them up with the heat. All the workers were kind, really wonderful.”

But anger crept into Schwebel’s voice when he turned his attention to the “shoot to kill order” that was issued in New Orleans to control alleged looting. “I was ashamed to be an American when I found out that our own country was shooting their own people. Those folks were only trying to feed their families in New Orleans. It just killed me, killed me to hear that.”

Rural and blue-collar workers, Black and white, are relying heavily on organizations for help. Pastor Kenneth Maurice Davis is part of the relief effort in the Gulf Basin. His church, Tabernacle Baptist Church in D’Iberville, population 7,608, is three miles from Biloxi. The church is the hub of survival. “The federal government often talks about faith-based organizations,” he said.” Now faith-based organizations are asking about the government.”

In the 1960 movie “Wild River,” Montgomery Clift played a Tennessee Valley Authority agent who was assigned to clear an area in the path of flooding for federal dam construction. No one was left behind, including an older woman who lived in a cabin in a rural community. It was Clift’s job to find her and evacuate her.

It is a far cry, and a different federal government 45 years later, when tens of thousands of rural residents in Mississippi were abandoned. No agent. No trucks. Nothing.

Tags:

Comments

comments

MOST POPULAR